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Grace under pressure: The unswerving leadership of Bill Streeter

Bill Streeter knew what needed to be done.

But he wanted to talk about those ideas with a trusted source. In December 2008, shortly after the corporate board of directors at MFA Incorporated selected Streeter as the new MFA president and CEO effective March 1, 2009, he went to visit his friend Larry Thompson. Thompson had retired from MFA as a regional manager just a year earlier. Thompson was well versed in MFA operations.

They talked for a couple of hours. Streeter trusted Thompson’s judgment. The two had known each other since the early 1970s when Streeter, as a new salesman for MFA Oil’s chemical division, would call on Thompson who was managing the Norborne MFA location. They hit it off immediately.

The MFA connection ran deep in Larry Thompson’s family. His father, Ranie, managed the Lexington MFA before and after MFA purchased the facility in 1962. Ranie Thompson rose at MFA to become a district manager. Ranie Thompson, said Streeter recently, was one of the best district managers MFA ever employed. His son, Larry, started working for MFA in high school pushing a broom. He followed in his father’s footsteps all the way to becoming a regional manager in 2001 and earning similar praise from Streeter (and many others).

The background

For historical context on that conversation, remember the nation was reeling from a worldwide economic downturn, if not outright depression, in late 2008 and early 2009. So was MFA. Streeter cut straight to the point. “I don’t have a lot of years to do this,” Streeter told Thompson. “But there are several things that need to be accomplished. I’m going to focus on getting them done in the time I have.” Streeter was 60 years old when he stepped into the role of president.

At the time the two men met, plant foods that wholesaled at $1,000 per ton in August 2008 dropped to $500 per ton retail. MFA had more than 100,000 tons backed up in a system built for rapid turns. That inventory exploded on the balance sheet.

Adding to the explosion, swine flu hysteria was sweeping the nation. Consumers irrationally avoided pork, an action which drove hog prices to below production levels. MFA, at the time, was heavily invested in hogs.

Simultaneously, feed ingredients dropped precipitously. So too did glyphosate price. MFA President and CEO Don Copenhaver had announced his retirement the previous summer prior to the end of MFA’s fiscal year which saw historic profitably. But winter of 2008-09 brought the fiscal crisis home. Losses resulting from inventories drew the attention of bankers.

Further aggravating the situation, MFA, in 2008, in conjunction with CoBank had entered into a syndicated loan with several Farm Credit System banks around the country. MFA’s loss for the fiscal year caused several of those bankers who had no history with MFA to begin tightening loan covenants.

The result

Streeter calmly stepped into the breach, responded quickly and assembled teams that spanned MFA’s breadth, including finance, grain, livestock, seed and crop protection, retail, wholesale, and credit. “The best way out of difficulty is through it,” he announced confidently in a staff meeting in MFA’s board room in early 2009. He and his team then put together a substantial, detailed roadmap to profitability. They reduced expenses by $22 million. They made plans to sell MFA’s swine operations. Even more indicative of Streeter’s style, the teams streamlined operations, set and met targeted goals. The resulting achievements impressed the new bankers and set the cooperative back on the road to profitability.

It was classic Bill Streeter: “function as a team, plan and keep score.” Without keeping score, he noted, plans are just good intentions. To be complete, he said, plans must be implemented. And implementation must be tracked. Planners won’t know results if they’re not keeping score. “Keep in mind,” he said, “plans cannot be rigid. If results vary from expectations, change the plan immediately. Somebody’s got to have the ability to look around corners.”

Months later when Bill Streeter stood before MFA managers in August 2009, he began his remarks saying, “I was hired to be MFA’s president and CEO effective March 1, 2009. I’ve worked at MFA since 1973. I have faith in you. I have faith in our customers. I have faith in myself. And I have faith in MFA. I’ve been asked if I regretted taking the job since this will be a loss year,” he continued. “My response? ‘Hell, no.’ I’m right where I want to be. I wouldn’t trust anybody else.”

He reminded those assembled of the difference between the breakfast contributions of the chicken and the pig. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. “Think of me as the pig,” he said. “I’m committed. I’ve been in wholesale. I’ve been in retail. I’ve been in sales. I’ve been in trouble.” MFA ended the 2009-10 fiscal year with a profit of $9.7 million. MFA’s balance sheet began its steady climb to recovery.

Don Mills, chairman of the MFA corporate board of directors, has been on MFA’s board since 2006 and was kept highly informed of plans and actions during the turnaround. “No question in my mind,” he said, “Bill Streeter was the right person at the right time in the right situation. Not very many people could have taken that situation and turned it around. And no one except Bill Streeter could have turned it around so quickly. Bill will be remembered for leading the turnaround,” said Mills. “Bill Streeter put people in place and then led them in the right direction. He demanded a lot of them, and they stepped up to their potential.” Mills stopped for a minute, grinned and said, “And one of them is CEO today.”

Mills is unique as a board member. Today, Mills runs black cattle and Hereford bulls on his 700-acre ranch outside of El Dorado Springs in southwest Missouri. He has seen MFA from all sides: as a farmer and rancher; as a director of a local MFA affiliate; as the general manager of a locally-owned affiliate; as the manager of a company-owned Agri Services; and as a corporate board member. The experience gave him perspective. “I understood MFA’s financials before starting on the board; I knew the home office and its purpose; and I knew the structure. I also knew Bill Streeter’s focus on employee education. We’ll see the impact of that for years and years.”

Streeter’s leadership did not go unnoticed outside of the cooperative. Dr. Michael Cook, who occupies the Robert Partridge chair at the University of Missouri-Columbia, keeps a close eye on cooperatives around the country. “Bill Streeter is one of Missouri’s hidden gems,” he said. “He is one of the most talented and successful leaders in Missouri. With an exceptional mind and keen business acumen, Bill’s understanding, insight and knowledge of production agriculture and the farm-supply business chain are unmatched,” he said. “He devotes his time, energy and resources not only to ensure that MFA is a sound company but to also guarantee development opportunities for the next generation of agricultural and cooperative leaders.”

Don Mills, from his perspective as a corporate board member, watched Streeter closely during the turnaround timeframe. Streeter’s performance during the district meetings impressed Mills and the membership. “At one of the meetings, Bill put the mic down, rolled up his sleeves and walked right down the middle of the aisle and asked for questions. And he answered every one of those questions to the members’ satisfaction. How could a member not admire that? And he took tough questions and answered them head on. He just kept at it until there were no questions left.”

Brian Griffith, now senior vice president of corporate services and general counsel, worked closely with other senior leaders during the 2009 situation. “Some may say MFA got lucky during that timeframe,” noted Griffith. “But one of Bill Streeter’s favorite quotes sums it up well. ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.’ Bill Streeter and his management team are the reason MFA was prepared.” 

The man

Bill Streeter has always operated on a belief in success. It’s a simple formula, he said. Just be the best prepared individual in the room, work hard, learn from your mistakes, learn from the mistakes of others, always listen, be honest and candid, and respond to the needs of your customers. Simple. Right? Oh, and find, hire, train and retain the best people.

It’s a philosophy that’s served him well—one he picked up from his parents as well as a high-school teacher who made a profound impression. “I was taught at an early age to be optimistic and honest and to have integrity and be compassionate to your fellow man,” he said. “My dad taught me never to take advantage of others—no matter how smart it might make you feel to have bested another.”

The teacher who made such an impression on the young Streeter was Arnold Ryan, a legendary high-school coach in southeastern Missouri with a claim on inventing today’s run-and-gun basketball game in the late 1940s. Streeter had Ryan for a citizenship class. “He taught me to approach life and my profession with enthusiasm,” said Streeter. “He always emphasized, ‘Change your attitude; change your life.’ It stuck with me. He’d ask, ‘If not now, when?’ Will you finally start working hard when you graduate from high school? From college? When you get your first job? When you get married? When you have a family? When? Why not right now? It’s all about self-discipline.’”

His career

Streeter’s 40-plus year career at MFA began in selling crop protection products for MFA Oil Company after a tour in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. He was drafted just after receiving his bachelor’s degree in agriculture at the University of Missouri. Over the years he’s managed the farm supply division and served as vice president of corporate sales, which included managing plant foods marketing, agronomy services and corporate communications.

By 1998, he was appointed senior vice president of Agri Services overseeing all of MFA’s retail outlets, a position he held until Feb. 28, 2009. Janice Schuerman, recently retired senior vice president of corporate services and secretary to the corporate board of directors, has known and worked with Streeter since the 1970s. Schuerman retired at roughly the same time. She’s a Streeter fan. “First and foremost,” she said, “Bill Streeter has the ability to envision the company’s future and to communicate that vision. He has a clear passion for the organization. And it’s contagious.”

Schuerman’s responsibilities included human resources and training. The two worked hand-in-glove to develop the individuals who work at MFA. The reason is straightforward. “We need competent people,” said Streeter. “We need the right people in the right places. We need to train them and retain them. The levels of sophistication in farmers in terms of education and knowledge have grown by leaps and bounds. Add in the introduction of technology, and you’ll get a glimpse of just how knowledgeable our customers have become.”

From Streeter’s perspective, “There are always substitutes for products, especially in the commodity world of agriculture. What there are no substitutes for are people and processes. We want to make sure the customer has a good experience, that the customer knows MFA is in business to serve him, to make his business profitable by offering quality products and services specifically designed for today’s agriculture. It is a partnership.”

MFA’s role in this partnership, he noted, is staying ahead of the curve in both technology and product offerings. “Look, for instance,” he said, “at what’s referred to today as ‘big data.’ Here’s the challenge. With all the information in crop and livestock, how are you going to first record it and then more importantly use it? That’s the thought process in MFA’s livestock and agronomy divisions. How can we help our customers use the right data to make the right decisions? Keep watching our Precision and PowerCalf offerings. MFA can give producers a hell of a lot of data. And we can return that data sorted into useful ways that producers can use to make profitable decisions.”

The professionalism

Ernie Verslues, selected by the corporate board to replace Streeter effective March 1, 2015, has worked closely with Streeter over the years. In early February, Verslues was already assuming many of the CEO duties. Streeter, in order to put Verslues in the center of responsibility, had moved out of his office. Verslues hadn’t really moved into the president’s office in early February. Counters were bare, bookshelves were empty. Verslues was focused on the responsibilities of the job, not office decor.

Verslues stopped briefly to share his thoughts on the man with whom and for whom he had worked for 20-some years. “Bill Streeter will be remembered for many things,” he said. “Professionalism needs to be at the top of the list. Whether it’s brand management or employees, Bill wants MFA and everyone associated with it to be professional. You can’t protect the corporate image if you’re not professional. Our customers deserve nothing less. It’s a philosophy he lives by and makes certain everyone understands.”

From Verslues’ perspective, Streeter has been instrumental in making everyone understand that MFA is a system. “We’re not wholesale,” Verslues explained. “We’re not retail. Management is a team approach. That’s what it needs to be. We’re all moving in the same direction. We have to work together as a system to be successful.”

Craig Childs is vice president of MFA’s Agri Services division. He eventually replaced Bill Streeter in that job when Streeter became CEO. All five of MFA’s regional managers report to him. Childs cut his teeth at the counter of the Lexington MFA Agri Services Center. Larry Thompson hired him. He moved up steadily to become a regional manager himself prior to assuming the job of vice president. He’s worked closely with Streeter.

“Bill has always been one of those people you aspire to be like,” said Childs. “He has incredible recall. But it goes beyond that. He’s always processing that information and looking for ways to act on it. And as a boss, he’s like a coach in many ways. He lets you make your own decisions. He also lets you make your own mistakes. But the whole time he’s guiding you, even when you don’t realize you’re being guided.”

Bill Streeter’s recall is legendary at MFA. He’s able to effortlessly recall names, numbers, dates and events with uncanny accuracy. It’s one of the things mentioned by Don Houston in his reflections on working for Streeter. “One of the things I admire is he never forgets a name,” said Houston. “That impresses employees and customers alike.” Houston began managing for MFA in the 1980s first at Harrisonville in west-central Missouri and then at Laddonia in east-central before being hired by Streeter as a regional manager.

Houston is vice president of supply operations and marketing for MFA. By necessity, that makes him a numbers guy, something he’s always admired about Streeter. “Numbers make sense to Bill Streeter,” he said. “And he can explain those numbers well enough that they make sense to everyone in the room.”

But it’s more than numbers and memory that make Streeter so effective, he said. It’s his management style. “I’ve always appreciated his faith in me,” Houston said. “One time when I was a regional manager explaining personnel changes I wanted to make, he stopped me abruptly. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to micromanage you. It’s your region. Make the decisions and live with the results.’ Basically, he was giving me enough rope to hang myself. I tend to push the edge, take things to the limit. He tolerated that. I think he has some of it himself.”

The example is also classic Bill Streeter.

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